The church of Saint-Philibert-de-Grand-Lieu is an interesting and rare survival of a Carolingian building, dating from 814-39 AD. It was a monastic church and a place of pilgrimage until 858, when it was sacked by the Vikings and abandoned. The original sarcophagus of St. Philibert, installed in 839, can still be seen in the crypt.
In 814, monks living on the island of Noirmoutier feared for a Viking attack so they built a backup priory church on the mainland nearby. They chose Déas, near the Lake of Grand-Lieu, as the site and completed it by 819. In 836, the monastery on the exposed Isle of Noirmoutier had to be entirely abandoned.
In June 836 the monks fled with their relics of St. Philibert to the priory church in Déas, which became known as Saint-Philibert-de-Grand-Lieu. Many miracles were reported during the translation of the relics and pilgrims immediately began to visit the tomb, which was placed temporarily in the south transept.
The monks adapted the priory church to accommodate the pilgrims in 836-39. They demolished the original east apse, replacing it with a square area with a new apse at the east end. Narrow chambers led to a chamber beneath the square sanctuary for the sarcophagus of St. Philibert, which was installed in 839 and remains there today.
Further adjustments were made to the east end by 847, including the addition of a series of chapels around the processional path, with the entrance to the lower chamber at the east end. But the monks barely had a decade to enjoy their new church before the Vikings attacked (858) and the community fled to Cunault in Anjou. There was no time to bring the relics along, so the monks sealed the entrance to the crypt and left them behind.
In 858, the monks were finally able to return to Saint-Philibert-de-Grand-Lieu to gather the saint's relics. They collected them in a leather bag, leaving the sarcophagus in place, and too them to the Abbey of Saint-Philibert in Tournus. The priory church on the lake became a backwater, mostly forgotten for 700 years.
In the mid-10th century, a few monks returned to Déas/Saint-Philibert-de-Grand-Lieu to manage its assets. It became a priory dependent on the abbey at Tournus and never housed more than six monks.
On July 26, 1580, the Protestant troops of Montaigu plundered and desecrated the church, destroying the choir, porch and bell. In the early 1600s, priests replaced the monks and the priory became a parish church.
Restoration of the church began in 1762 but by the end of the century it was being used as a storehouse for food and ammunitions. After the Concordat, the church was used for worship until the constructin of a neo-Gothic church 300 meters away was completed in 1870.
In 1865, the sarcophagus of St. Philibert was discovered in the crypt and restoration work began again in 1870. The walls were lowered 3 meters, as major cracks had appeared. The framing and the roof were replaced, with 16 skylights to light the building. Exacavations and restoration continued from 1898 to 1904.
In 1936, celebrations marked the 11th centenary of the translation of the relics of St. Philibert to Saint-Phlibert-de-Grand-Lieu and the church was once again used for worship. A relic of Saint Philibert was placed in his sarcophagus. In 1993, the priory church was bought by the town.
What to See
The church of Saint-Philibert-de-Grand-Lieu has a simple west front and no towers. Inside, the nave has narrow side aisles and a transept with such short arms and great width that is almost square. The crypt with Philibert's sarcophagus is at ground level; the sanctuary bay and apse are raised over it.
The chapels in the east end are placed "ladder-wise" or "step-wise," or en échelon in French. This feature is thus known as an apse échelon, and can be found in numerous later Romanesque and Gothic churches. A contemporary apse échelon can be seen at St-Germain in Auxerre.
Quick Facts on St-Philibert-de-Grand-Lieu
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- Kenneth John Conant, Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture 800-1200 (Pelican History of Art) (Yale University Press, 1993), 65-66.
- Abbatiale Saint-Philibert - Structurae.fr
- L'art carolingien - Art préroman
- L'abbatiale St-Philibert-de-Grand-Lieu - Pays de Retz
- St-Philibert-de-Grand-Lieu - Go Historic
- Photos of St-Philibert-de-Grand-Lieu - here on Sacred Destinations
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